Little League Lessons for a Big League Hitter
By Mark Smith
Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels right fielderJosh Hamilton
(32) is congratulated after scoring a run in the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
“A walk is as good as a hit.”
At least that’s what my friend’s Dad used to say. This mantra is espoused by some of the best youth coaches in the country. If you grew up playing Little League, then you’ve undoubtedly heard this at one time or another.
Admittedly, I didn’t think much about this advice when I was younger. After all, most Little Leaguers would rather swing out of their shoes and hit a double off the right-field wall than walk. Sure, it’s good advice to impart on eight year-olds who love to swing for the fences. But taking a base on balls? Nope, not for me.
Or at least that’s what I thought back then.
I hadn’t thought about this simple concept in years. But it suddenly re-entered my mind while watching the Angels-Astros series last weekend. At one point, Josh Hamilton stepped into the batters’ box with a 3-2 count. Negative feelings crept into my subconscious and I immediately thought, “Here comes another lazy swing at a ball in the dirt.” Disinterested, I began to walk into the kitchen when I heard Victor Rojas say, “And Hamilton takes ball four”
You can imagine my surprise as the usually free-swinging Hamilton looked more like Kevin Youkilis (“The Greek God of Walks”) than Josh Hamilton? I watched in disbelief during the series as Hamilton continued to exercise more patience at the plate. He appeared less inclined to swing at the breaking pitches and more selective during each at bat. I immediately thought of the old mantra instilled in us so many years ago:
“A walk is as good as a hit.”
So obvious, yet so true. Applicable to Little Leaguers and big leaguers alike – years later, this fundamental principle remains sound.
Being patient pays dividends. Look at Hamilton’s recent numbers – his increased patience and improved pitch selection has led to a very productive June and is gradually bleeding into July. Now I’m not saying that Josh walks a lot (because he doesn’t) but the principle is the same.
Plate discipline and patience equate to success as a hitter. Being selective and forcing a pitcher deeper into counts creates pressure on the pitcher. Pressure to throw a strike, which in turn increases the likelihood that a hitter will eventually get a pitch to hit. This same pressure to throw strikes can also have the reverse effect, causing the pitcher to lose his command and throw balls out of the zone.
It’s July 6th and Hamilton is batting .227 with 11 home runs and 31 RBI’s. He’s already posted 25 BB’s which is a relatively good number for Hamilton – he only walked 24 times during the entire 2009 season in Texas. Hamilton has hit safely in 10 straight games, batting .382 (13 for 34), while posting an OBP of .476 during this stretch as well.
His improved plate discipline hasn’t been lost on Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia. Scioscia told MLB.com:
"Josh is moving toward what we hope will be the normal production we expect from a player of his caliber, and he’s been swinging the bat much better."
Hamilton calls it “pitch recognition” which is hitting coach talk to describe the ability to recognize (and lay off) the breaking ball that has baffled him for most of the 2013 season.
"Right now it’s just about coming in and continuing to do the things I’ve done over the last three or four weeks to feel better at the plate, keep doing that on a daily basis, and hopefully the pitch recognition will stay and I’ll have better at-bats. That’s all you want to do, have better on-base and do anything you can to help the team win. That aspect of it feels a lot better."
Let’s be honest here – Hamilton is never going to be next “Greek God of Walks.” He’s just not that kind of player. But he can greatly improve his numbers this year if he can continue exercising plate discipline. Things are starting to turn around for Hamilton which can also be said for the Angels.
So here’s hoping Hamilton continues to lay off the bad pitches and swings at the good ones.
After all, even big leaguers need to remember: A walk is as good as a hit.